News that the city has received a final draft of the environmental study for a portion of the Rainier cross-town connector has caused one City Council member to question the city's approach to the long-planned infrastructure project.

The controversial — and often politicized — Rainier cross-town connector is meant to link east and west Petaluma by extending Rainier Avenue underneath Highway 101 and linking it to Petaluma Boulevard North. The project consists of three primary construction phases: creating the structure for an under-crossing beneath Highway 101 at the same time Caltrans widens the highway; extending Rainier Avenue through that undercrossing to connect it to Petaluma Boulevard North; and adding a freeway interchange.

Earlier this month, Councilmember Mike Healy sent a letter to city staff voicing several concerns over the direction of the project, including the potential for the environmental impact report to be challenged in court and the proposed order in which portions of the complex project are tackled.

"I haven't gotten any feedback from staff yet," said Healy. "I think they're too overwhelmed with regular city work. And I didn't raise simple questions."

Healy's memo to Assistant City Manager Scott Brohdun essentially asked staff to explore re-ordering large portions of the project — something City Senior Planner Heather Hines said she simply has not had time to consider yet.

Specifically, Healy questioned if the long-planned goal of building the Highway 101 under-crossing structure first, the Rainier Avenue extension next and the Highway 101 interchanges last, is the best way to approach the project.

"We have to ask ourselves which portion of the project is more cost effective and provides the most initial traffic relief?" said Healy. "I think there are major savings that could be achieved if we did the interchanges at the same time as the under crossing and Highway 101 widening. If that's wrong, then I'm open to being persuaded the other way, but it makes the most sense to me."

Meanwhile, some in the city remain skeptical that the project will ever be completed.

Planning for an extension of Rainier Avenue that would connect the east and west sides of town underneath Highway 101 began in 1965, but has been erratic over the past few decades. Support has ebbed and flowed, as have ways to fund the estimated $115 million project cost. In 2004, a ballot advisory measure showed that 72 percent of Petaluma's population wanted the east-west connector built, and the long-planned connector has remained in the city's general plan ever since.

Much of the difficulty in finalizing a project of such magnitude surrounds the widening of Highway 101 by Caltrans. In order to extend Rainier Avenue across town and connect it to Petaluma Boulevard North, Caltrans needs to raise Highway 101 and create an under-crossing for the future Rainier Avenue extension. In addition to this, Caltrans must also approve Highway 101 interchanges at Rainier Avenue — something that has been a hurdle in the past.

Typically, Caltrans likes highway interchanges to be at least one mile apart, but the proposed Rainier on- and off-ramps would be within one mile of the East Washington Street exits. While Caltrans has never said no to the proposed Rainier interchanges, getting approval for them will require extra work.

Further complicating the issue has been the question of how to pay for the project. While most of the $115 million is supposed to come from development impact fees, that money will only be collected once the city is developed to the full extent the 2025 general plan calls for — meaning it could be years before the city sees all of those dollars. The city is also currently battling the state in court for $7.5 million in redevelopment fees Petaluma had set aside to help fund the Rainier project. There is no guarantee the city will be able to hold on to that money.

Over the years, the project has gone through several iterations. The many changes and price estimations have left city staff leery about making projections on future timelines or budgets. But as the widening of Highway 101 becomes a more realistic goal in the next decade, city officials are looking to move Rainier forward as well.

"I think everyone's starting to talk about it now that we know the EIR is coming," said Councilmember and Sonoma County Transit Authority representative Mike Harris. "We need to see what's feasible and what our next options are. Healy asked some pointed questions that we need answers to as we go through the process."

Hines said that she and other city staff will be reviewing Healy's questions along with the Rainier crosstown connector environmental report. She hopes to release the study to the public in October.

(Contact Janelle Wetzstein at janelle.wetzstein@arguscourier.com)